Millionaire's Lecture on Living With Less: Preachy, Yes ... but Useful

Graham Hill  -
Graham Hill -

There's a lot to be said for clearing the clutter out of your home. Getting rid of your junk can streamline your life, make it possible for you to move to a smaller space, give you a little more room for the things that you really care about, and even help you raise money. It can save you cash, save you time, save your sanity and save your space. In fact, it's hard to think of a way that shrinking your possessions and becoming more thoughtful about your consumption doesn't improve your world.

This isn't a new idea, either: For years, DailyFinance readers and writers have been offering advice on the wisdom of carefully pruning out possessions and moving to a smaller space. The thing about advice, though, is that sometimes the messenger matters as much as the message -- a fact that was beautifully illustrated this week, when Internet millionaire Graham Hill wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he held forth on the wonders of living with less.

Graham Hill's Charmed Life

Noting studies about food waste in America and the emotional problems that can accompany materialism, Hill documented his own experiences with clearing out clutter and moving into a 420-square foot apartment in Manhattan. Discussing how his new, smaller life has freed up a lot of mental real estate, he pointed out that it has opened him to new experiences and, generally, made his life a lot richer, even as it's gotten smaller.

Hill's advice was useful: The trouble is, as critics noted, for millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, there's something galling about getting a lecture from a multimillionaire who has chosen to live with less. It didn't help that Hill's account of his charmed life offered a vision of a world in which money is a secondary concern, a natural resource with a seemingly limitless supply. Contrasting his "before" life, which featured a "personal shopper" named Seven and a 3,600-square-foot house in Seattle, with his "after" life, in which an "Andorran beauty" named Olga showed him the error of his ways as the pair spent years traveling around the world, Hill's tale featured one constant theme: In his world, money is a tool for self-exploration. For most of the rest of us, however, money is a tight commodity that we have to spend most of our time trying to acquire and much of our energy conserving.

Moving Into Less

I have a bit of experience with the art of intentionally streamlining your life. I live a few miles from Graham Hill, in a middle class neighborhood in Queens, New York. My wife, daughter and I share an 850 square foot apartment, which works out to about 283 square feet per person, not counting the space taken up by our two cats.

To some extent, we chose to live this way. We chose to move out of southwest Virginia, where we lived in a huge, 2,500-square foot house with a beautiful view, but faced a sluggish job market. We also chose to move out of a sprawling 1,500-square foot apartment in the Bronx, which had lots of space, but was located in a rough neighborhood. We like where we live now, and most days, we don't mind living on top of each other.

And, to be honest, we also have much more space than the average New York apartment dweller.

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But it's worth pointing out that our apartment isn't some sort of spiritual/philosophical experiment. We are, simply, living in the biggest space we can afford in a neighborhood where we feel safe. Our lives are relatively small because we don't have room to sprawl out. While we like the fact that our tiny apartment makes us keep a tight rein on the things we buy, there are times when my wife and I dream of having a living space with a study -- maybe even two studies! -- with doors that we could actually close.

There's a lot to be said for our downsized lives: We can't really let the clutter pile up, and it rarely takes us more than 10 minutes to find anything in our apartment. Not having the space for a lot of stuff, we tend to be very careful about what we buy, which has saved us a lot of money. For that matter, we have grown to like the intense thoughtfulness that we have to apply to each purchase. I think that, even when we move to a larger space, we'll still be careful shoppers.

Regardless of his personal circumstances, Hill is definitely right about one thing: consumption is a choice. We can choose to live with less. We can purchase deliberately, can budget in ways that cut back on some expenses and leave room for others. We can learn that spending less money doesn't necessarily translate to failure -- it can simply be a matter of choice. And whether this lesson comes from a decade of world travel, a move to a better job market, or desperate budgeting following the loss of a job, it's a good lesson to learn.


And here is the apartment before renovation:

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.